It’s hard to predict where inspiration will strike, but studies have shown there’s a relationship between location and ideas—at least insofar as relaxing places, like the shower, tend to make you more creative than the boardroom. Is it any wonder that Alexander Graham Bell came up with his idea for the telephone in the beautiful dale near his family’s home that he called his “dreaming place?”
While it’s possible you might not come up with any world-changing ideas while visiting the homes of America’s greatest inventors, there’s a special feeling to be found looking at the places where they ate, slept, worked—and most importantly—imagined. Lucky for us, many of the homes of the nation’s most prolific scientific and technical geniuses have been preserved for the public. (Not all are located in the United States, however—“American” here refers to citizenship alone, and many inventors traveled). These are places filled with both everyday and technical artifacts that tell the larger stories behind inventions that changed the world.
At the newly opened Innovation Wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, visitors can explore the workstation of video game inventor Ralph Baer. The museum recreated Baer’s office, placing every book, tool, microchip and doodad in the same spot it was located in his Manchester, New Hampshire, home. But for many other inventors, you can see workshops and other spots of inspiration in their original locales. Here is just a sampling:
Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, New Jersey
Although Thomas Edison first earned fame as "The Wizard of Menlo Park," New Jersey, today his largest lab complex, where he worked for more than 40 years, is preserved in West Orange (his Menlo Park lab has been recreated in Dearborn, Michigan). There, Edison and roughly 100 scientists and technicians perfected the phonograph (an invention Edison loved so much he called it his "baby"), worked on a nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery and filmed early silent films inside the world’s first movie studio—nicknamed the Black Maria after the large black police wagons of the day. Visitors to the 20,000-square-foot laboratory complex can tour Edison’s office, research library, machine shop and a variety of other buildings packed with the inventor’s tools, machines and products. Even the Black Maria still stands in a courtyard.
A short drive away but still within the park, Edison’s Glenmont Estate is also open for tours. Edison and his second wife Mina moved into the 29-room, Queen Anne-style mansion after their marriage in 1886, going on to raise six children there. Mina reportedly considered herself a “Home Executive,” running the household with the same precision Edison devoted to his inventions, and hosting formal dinners for guests such as Orville Wright, Henry Ford, Helen Keller and the King of Siam. Their antiques-filled estate reflects then-contemporary ideas about state-of-the–art housing; when it was built, the home was notable for having hot and cold running water, central heating, refrigeration and electricity. Visitors can tour the house, its lush gardens, working greenhouse and—more poignantly—visit the graves of Mina and Thomas, buried side-by-side in a simple plot behind their home.
Hawthorn Hill, Dayton, Ohio
Several sites related to the Wright brothers' lives are available to tour, including the North Carolina location of their pioneering flight in 1903, but the home where Orville Wright lived for nearly 35 years holds special allure. (Although both Orville and Wilbur purchased the house together in 1912, Wilbur died shortly after approving the plans and before he could move in.) The younger Wright filled Hawthorn Hill with labor-saving devices of his own design, including a water softener, a toaster that could both slice and brown bread and a system of chains and rods that allowed him to control the furnace from upstairs rooms. He liked to call Hawthorn Hill his "machine for living." Later owned by the National Cash Register Corporation, the estate opened for public tours in 2007.
George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, isn't just a mansion where the father of modern photography and motion picture film hung his hat for nearly 30 years—it's also the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the world’s oldest film archives. Eastman lived in the 50-room Colonial Revival mansion from 1905 until his death in 1932, and his house opened to the public as a non-profit museum in 1949 (a $1.7-million restoration based on vintage photos and other historical evidence took place in 1990.)
Visitors can see the art, textiles, furniture and fixtures Eastman surrounded himself with, as well as more than a dozen acres of beautiful gardens landscaped to look as they did when Eastman was strolling them. On the second floor of the house, the George Eastman Archive and Study Center maintains vast holdings related to Eastman's life as well as the history of photography and film, including many early photographs, films and videos, personal souvenirs from Eastman's travels, scrapbooks, vintage hunting and camping equipment and archives of the 12-year correspondence between Eastman and Booker T. Washington. But the most sure-to-please treat might be the onsite 500-seat Dryden Theatre, which presents screenings from the collection throughout the year, specializing in restored classics.
Benjamin Franklin House, London, England
Benjamin Franklin's sole remaining residence isn't in the United States but in London, where he arrived in 1757 to serve as colonial Pennsylvania's representative in Britain. Although his day job involved trying to broker a deal on the appropriate level of taxation for the colonies (yup, he failed), Franklin also found time while in London to invent bifocals, the energy-saving Franklin stove and the glass harmonica (even Mozart composed for it, after being introduced to the instrument by hypnotist Franz Mesmer). Franklin’s Georgian-style house at 36 Craven Street is now a museum offering a theatrical "historical experience" that takes visitors through various rooms of the house to learn more about Franklin’s social, political and scientific life. A “discovery room” contains historical artifacts, including one of Franklin’s letters, while a “demonstration room” allows visitors to try their hand reproducing some of Franklin's famous experiments. (A glass harmonica, unfortunately, does not seem to be available.)
Edison & Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida
Henry Ford’s home in Dearborn, Michigan is currently closed for restoration (the home where he was born has been moved to Greenfield Village, Michigan), but his winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, is open to the public. The place is a two-for-one deal, since both Henry Ford and Thomas Edison vacationed there in adjoining estates.
Edison moved to Fort Myers first, purchasing his property, called Seminole Lodge, in 1885, when Fort Myers was little more than a cow town. (His interest was spurred by the presence of bamboo, which he used for the filaments in his light bulbs.) His good friend and business partner Henry Ford joined him in 1916, purchasing a Craftsman-style bungalow known as The Mangoes. The two shared the occasional winter vacation at their twin estates for more than a decade, until Edison died in 1931. The lush gardens that now surround the estates are a testament to the botanical experiments the pair conducted together, investigating crops grown for food, industry and chemistry. (Edison was particularly interested in trying to locate a domestic source of rubber, which he eventually found in goldenrod.)
Today, visitors can tour 20 acres of the adjoining estates, whose 15 buildings include both family homes, historic gardens, the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory and the Edison Ford Museum. Alongside photographs chronicling the lives of both men and their families, artifacts on display at the museum include early telegraphs, telephones, x-ray machines, movie projectors, phonographs, nickelodeons and the custom-made Model T that Henry Ford had made for Edison as a token of their friendship.
Lewis H. Latimer House Museum, Queens, New York
Though his name might not be as famous as others on this list, Lewis H. Latimer played a key role in the development of both the telephone and the light bulb. Born to runaway slaves who fled from Virginia to Boston a few years before his birth in 1848, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing while serving with the Union Navy during the Civil War and later became an expert draughtsman. After the war, his talents served none other than Alexander Graham Bell—when Bell patented the telephone in 1876, it was Latimer's drawings that were on the application. Latimer went on to oversee the installation of street lighting and the construction of electric plants in several U.S. cities (as well as London and Montreal) while working for the U.S. Electric Light Company, then worked for Thomas Edison as both an engineer and patent investigator. But it was his invention of a method for creating carbon filaments in electric incandescent lights that left the largest impact, making the product significantly longer-lasting and more marketable. Other patents include the 1874 Water Closets for Railroad Cars, the 1881 Electric Lamp, an 1886 Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting, the 1896 Locking Rack for Coats, Hats & Umbrellas, and the 1905 Book Supporter. When he wasn’t inventing, Latimer was also a poet and a crusader for social justice.
He moved into this wood-framed house in a mostly white neighborhood in Queens in 1903, staying there until his death in 1928. The house was moved in 1988 after being threatened with demolition at its original location, and the exterior has been restored to look as it did in Latimer's time. Inside, exhibits explore Latimer's life and achievements, complete with early light bulbs, blow-up reproductions of his patents and drafts, and copies of his poems.
Bell Homestead National Historic Site, Brantford, Ontario, Canada
When the Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell arrived with his family in Brantford, Ontario, in 1870, the young man was gaunt from the tuberculosis that had already claimed two of his brothers. But Brantford’s climate agreed with him, and Bell recovered to spend many peaceful hours relaxing in a dale near his family's farmhouse. It was in this "dreaming place" that Bell first came up with his idea for the telephone, in July 1874, and in his family’s nearby carriage house that he conducted his early experiments. The Brantford farmhouse is also where Bell later mounted three public demonstrations of the telephone, proving it before the world.
Bell went on to create several other inventions (such as the hydrofoil, a craft that skims above the water) and to take American citizenship, before dying in 1922. The farmhouse first opened to the public in 1910 (Bell attended the dedication), and today it's been restored to its 19th-century appearance, complete with costumed staff who give tours of the site. Ten acres of bucolic wooded grounds surround the house, incorporating period-style flower and herb gardens and overlooking the Grand River—into whose waters Bell gazed on that momentous day in 1874.
Why Is Everyone in This Story Male?
As you may have noticed while reading about these homes, the inventors we celebrate in the United States tend to be men of a paler hue, even though the characteristics of innovation and creativity don’t discriminate by race or gender. While researching this story, I failed to find even one notable American female inventor whose house had been preserved and is now open to the public. (Private residences don't count, and neither do places that are just a closed door and a plaque.)
While there are some wonderful examples of houses that may one day be open—such as Villa Lewaro, home of America’s first self-made female millionaire Madam C. J. Walker—we’d love to hear about others we might have missed. Please tell us about your suggestions for homes of notable female inventors that can be visited now, or that should be preserved for future generations.